The Riddle of the Rock Piles—Effigies and Enigmas: A Southeastern Mystery Story – Part I
Southeastern United States: 2000 years ago | For hundreds of years, people had been accustomed to gathering in this special place near the great river at the sacred time of the winter solstice. Families who spent most of the year scattered about met to share news, introduce a developing crop of young people to each other, learn about new techniques of stone working and food production, and generally do what people always do when they meet together for celebrations - party!
What drew them to this spot originally was the stone quarry located at the confluence of the river and one of its many tributaries. It was easily accessible by both canoe and overland routes, offered high, flat ground upon which shelters could be safely erected above the reach of flood water, and featured plenty of game, natural foods, building supplies, and an endless supply of quartz cobbles, from which blanks could be struck that would provide next year's tools and weapons.
High overhead in the night sky at this time of year, the constellation that would later be named Cygnus the Swan stood solidly on the horizon at sundown, its six main stars forming a great cross. Backlighting it lay the narrow band of stars future generations would call the Milky Way.
A beautiful view of the night sky. (Ryan Hallock/ CC BY 2.0 )
The constellation Cygnus, the swan, hightlighted. (Till Credner/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
No one knows exactly what this grouping of heavenly bodies meant to these people. A hundred miles southwest, others of their culture were in the process of laying up piles of stones that people from a distant land would someday call a hawk and eagle effigy. Here on the river they practiced a different custom.
From the place where the elders gathered each evening to share stories and tribal myths, ridge tops could be seen across the savannah-like plains to the south, east and west where fires would be built on one of the most sacred nights of the year—the longest night. Over the years, clusters of stone piles had been built to mark these locations. Groups of five or more mounds appeared as each year people placed a few more rocks on the piles, either to honor departed loved ones or simply to say, “We were here.”
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At each of these carefully selected locations, when the sun fell behind the horizon to the west, a sacred myth would be enacted. Huge fires would blaze up into the heavens in six separate locations. From each location, but especially at the central village where the majority of the people gathered to wonder at the spectacle, what they would see would appear to be a miracle. The six central stars of the great bird in the night sky above would be reflected by the ceremonial flames of the earthly fires below. Thus, on the longest night of the year, heaven was brought down to earth. As above, so below. Balance was established. From now on, the days would grow longer, the sun warmer. Life would begin a new cycle. The people could relax and enjoy themselves. It was time to dance!
Fires and Dancing (Amy/ CC BY-SA 3.0 ;Deriv)
Present Day | No one knows, of course, if such a scenario ever took place exactly in this way. We will never know what went on in the minds of people so separated from us by both time and culture. But the scenario just described seems to fit the available evidence and may offer insight into what one archeologist has called the "problem" of rock piles.
The Problem of Rock Piles
Throughout the Southeast are found piles of stones that may or may not be considered mysterious, depending on your views concerning traditional archeology. In Tennessee the rocks sometime take the form of stone pillars that may be stacked as much as ten feet high. In Georgia, besides the eagle and hawk effigies already mentioned, some of the rock structures are built into walls that snake through existing mountains. In the Carolinas are found rough mounds made up mostly of quartz piled two or three feet high and as much as ten to fifteen feet across.